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May 19, 2009

Management Advice for Newspapers

Catherine New
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The ailing newspaper industry has seen its troubles go from bad to worse in recent months, with several high-profile closures and bankruptcy filings. Professor Jonathan Knee, director of Columbia Business School’s media program and co-author of the forthcoming “Curse of the Mogul: What’s Wrong with the World’s Leading Media Companies?”, was recently interviewed by the Wall Street Journal on the subject. Knee’s recommendation? Newspapers should focus more on their local coverage.

WSJ: What would be your advice to newspaper owners?

Knee: You have seen people outsource everything from printing to editorial and indeed, any kind of journalism where your scale in the local community does not provide you with an advantage should be gotten elsewhere. If you find out how many people the large papers sent to the national conventions, you would wonder whether that’s economically justified. You have to focus on your competitive advantage, which is local. When the smoke clears, the local newspaper, which may not be the sexiest part of the newspaper industry but is overwhelmingly the largest and most profitable part of the industry, will be a smaller and more-focused enterprise whose activities will be directed to those areas where their local presence gives them competitive advantage and they will continue to generate as a result better profits than the supersexy businesses in the media industry asking for government or nonprofit help like movies and music.

The newspaper industry has not been blessed with the best managers, and generations of monopoly profits do dull the senses. On the journalism side, I think many managers would rather have avoided a fight with journalists than actually force them to think harder about what their readers want, rather than what they want their readers to want. In the economic environment we’re in, newspapers can’t afford to do every six-part investigative series they could have done before.

Photo credit: Matt Callow